Aaron Leibowitz | The Fan
Rooting for Walter White
Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 09:10
I just watched the series finale of “Breaking Bad.” It was so good. It was perfect. Wasn’t it just perfect? Wasn’t it crazy when Mike came back from the dead and killed Walt? It was crazy.
All I can think about is that brilliant gem of a show, which means I have no choice but to write my column about it. We like to have fun here.
This column is about being a fan — a sports fan, namely — but what about the “Breaking Bad” fans of the world? What about the Walter White fans? All the way through the series’ final moments, millions of people were rooting for a sociopathic murderer. How do you explain that?
Of course, plenty were rooting against Walt, and I commend those people. But in the final episodes, the meth king showed fleeting signs of humanity, wisdom and courage. Like Tony Soprano, he never quite let us — or at least me — lose all sympathy.
I’m not a TV critic. Honestly, my best critical assessment of “Breaking Bad” is that the whole thing was frickin’ awesome. Still, I think it offers a fascinating study in fandom: Whom do we root for, and why?
Walt, for one, had three things going for him. One: He was an underdog with a chip on his shoulder. Two: He worked hard and succeeded. Three: He was, supposedly, doing it all for his family.
And yet number three, we know, is not true. Walt admits as much in the final episode when, in a chilling moment, he says to Skyler, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.”
Walt acted on pure instinct and desire. He took a risk and never looked back. He refused to let the world take advantage of him. That’s why we rooted for a monster.
The question is, how much are we willing to forgive when the end goal is money and power? Should we forgive Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, for being a narcissistic jerk? (If you’re reading this, Michael, I forgive you.) Should we forgive Roger Clemens, one of the best pitchers of all time, for cheating to become better at his craft? (Sorry, Roger, no sympathy for you.)
What about Ty Cobb, a bigot whose rage propelled him to a Hall of Fame career? Should there be an asterisk on his Cooperstown plaque? Do the ends justify the means?
In the case of Walter White, it’s clear that he does more harm than good. He ruins countless lives and destroys his family. From a utilitarian standpoint, he’s a terrible human being.
With our athletes, though, it’s not so clear cut. We admire those who will do whatever it takes to win. We glorify the relentless pursuit of success. We fantasize about escaping the monotony of classes and 9-to-5 jobs and becoming a football player — or a movie star or a criminal kingpin.
At the same time, we want the guy who crushes people for a living to show his compassion on an ESPN “My Wish” segment. We want the badass, Heisenberg, and the quiet chemistry teacher, Walter, rolled into one. That’s a lot to ask.
The best explanation of these dual desires is that, in the sports world, as in Walt’s world, one abides by a different moral code. It is not about following the rules. It is not about making other people happy.
It’s about defending one’s honor. It’s about succeeding at all costs. It’s about winning — and winning, whether in sports or on TV, never loses its allure.